Based on the novel by Richard Adams
Produced by 42, Biscuit Filmworks, BBC, and Netflix
Released December 2018
To say Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down is a formative influence is perhaps a massive understatement, so naturally I was thrilled to learn that Netflix and the BBC were collaborating to remake the story as a miniseries. The new adaptation dropped late last year, and while I found the results wanting, it did inspire me to revisit the story in depth. The experience rekindled my admiration for a classic while also enabling me to see the story from interesting new angles.
Released in 1973, Watership Down was a unique and memorable work about a group of rabbits who, led by the charismatic Hazel and his peculiar little brother Fiver, set out across the south of England in search of a new home. When Fiver, who possesses a mysterious sixth sense, has a vision of Sandleford Warren’s imminent destruction, he and Hazel try to convince the chief rabbit they should evacuate immediately and find a new place to live. Most of the rabbits of Sandleford, including the chief, are too complacent to receive Fiver’s warning with anything more than skepticism. Several are persuaded, however, and together, this small band escapes the pursuit of the “Owsla” (a lapine version of the police) to strike out on their own. Their goal: find a perfect, safe new home, which Fiver eventually deduces should be atop the sloping heights of Watership Down. What follows is a cross-country adventure wherein an intrepid group of friends works together to elude predators, avoid close calls with the dangers of humankind, and outwit the oppressive regime of “Efrafa,” an authoritarian warren run by the vicious General Woundwort.
Wikipedia describes the book as a “survival and adventure novel,” but make no mistake: This is a fantasy. In fact, with its quest plot, band of adventurers, and the good-versus-evil conflict at its core, it resonates as epic fantasy. The fact that the heroes are anthropomorphized animals doesn’t detract from that impression, especially once you get to know the many memorable members of Hazel and Fiver’s party. Most important, perhaps, is Bigwig, a former officer in Sandleford’s Owsla and the group’s most formidable fighter. But there are other great characters: clever Blackberry, whose fierce intelligence bails the group out of multiple scrapes; Dandelion, the fastest runner, whose stories keep the group entertained in between adventures; Silver, another disgruntled former Owsla officer who informally serves as Bigwig’s second-in-command when it comes to combat duty; and Pipkin, Fiver’s miniscule friend, who flourishes under Hazel’s encouraging leadership. Indeed, the group functions as something of a small, tactical military unit, with Hazel as its respected lieutenant. (In my edition, the author’s introduction admits: “I imagined Fiver’s brother, Hazel, as being rather like my commanding officer during the war. He himself was a gentle, modest man, but he had a shrewd, keen mind, able to perceive what needed doing and stick to it with authority.” Adams’ military background, which I wasn’t aware of during my many teenaged re-reads of the novel, seems extremely obvious in retrospect, and lends considerable insight to the work’s characters, structure, worldbuilding, and themes.)
There’s more depth to the fantasy backdrop than the simple premise of a band of animals living out an invisible “secret history” underneath humanity’s very nose. The genre feel is deepened by Adams’ inventive depiction of rabbit society, which comes with its own language and mythology. The lapine vocabulary, while modest, comes with a certain Tolkienesque resonance. (If you ask me, at least one word, “tharn,” really ought to find its way into common parlance—especially these days!) Meanwhile, the mythology contributes greatly to the story’s fantastical ambience. The rabbits see “Frith” (the sun) as the god of all things, while “El-ahrairah” serves as the rabbits’ trickster folk hero. El-ahrairah’s stories, usually told by Dandelion, occasionally punctuate and comment on the narrative. This is straight-up genre worldbuilding, and Adams executes it quite well.
Re-reading the novel for this review, I spotted the flaws my younger self wouldn’t have identified: clumsy fourth-wall breaks, an oft-pedantic tone, and an occasionally flagging pace, especially during the El-ahrairah tales. (Crucial as they are to the worldbuilding, they do have a tendency to suck away the narrative momentum.) Finally, there is a rather of-its-time, cavalier maleness to Watership Down, a tricky flaw to articulate in the context of this particular book. Let’s say this: In humanizing his animal characters, Adams walks the line between staying true to the science of actual rabbit behavior and taking liberties to imbue his rabbits with human characteristics. He does so quite effectively, but is uneven in his footing: It’s fair to say that when it comes to personality, mannerisms, idiom, and agency, the novel’s bucks are more humanized than its does—whose objectification is baked into the plot. Mitigating factors notwithstanding—i.e., the military parallels, the scientific research that influenced Adams’ worldbuilding, even the time it was written—the gender dynamics in Watership Down require a forgiving filter.
Nonetheless, by and large the decades haven’t diminished the novel’s magic for me. It still sings in its rich detail, its eloquent voice, the winning ensemble chemistry of its rabbit cast, and especially in its powerful messaging. Watership Down stands as a beautiful rallying cry for teamwork, camaraderie, decency, and coexistence in the face of bullying, oppression, and authoritarianism. Much of this messaging comes out through Hazel’s leadership, which is proper, fair, and commonsensical. The way he seizes on the idea of befriending and cooperating with other animals, for example—most notably an eccentric seagull named Kehaar—is emblematic of its positive messaging. There’s also a cleverly handled environmentalism to the novel, and not merely in how it vilifies humanity for its dismissive, rapacious treatment of the earth. The more the rabbits act like humans, the more strife and misery is caused; Adams suggests, without ever hitting you over the head with it, that we’re all just animals who want to lead our lives, and by recognizing that and working together, all manner of pain and suffering could be avoided.
Watership Down’s success was enhanced, I suspect, by a mostly faithful 1979 film adaptation from writer-director Martin Rosen. The passage of time has erased from my memory whether the novel brought me to the film or vice versa, but to me they are complementary experiences, equally formative. The animated film still holds up, I think: a haunting, beautiful, and occasionally terrifying interpretation of Adams’ vision that doesn’t shy away from the book’s darker subtexts, particularly regarding the perils of authoritarianism. Characterized by superb voice work, a winning mixture of humor, heart, and suspense, and a rousing, perfect musical score by Angela Morley, it’s a streamlined and memorable film, largely true to the spirit of the book. The film does, however, narrow down the cast, and the story is significantly condensed, rushing many memorable episodes that could have used more exploring.
In many ways, then, Watership Down was ripe for a reboot, both to expand and flesh out the film’s brushstrokes, and to revisit the novel’s powerful messages and themes, which couldn’t be more timely in an era of looming climate disaster and surging neofascism. Enter this most recent adaptation from Netflix and the BBC, which—to its credit—aims to accomplish both of these objectives. And there was every reason for optimism that it would be amazing. Animation has come a long way since the late seventies, and the caliber of voice talent recruited for the project suggests the story left its mark in the acting world, because famous performers seem to have lined right up to participate. James McAvoy as Hazel. John Boyega as Bigwig. Peter Capaldi as Kehaar. Daniel Kaluuya, Nicholas Hoult, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Colman, Rosamund Pike, Tom Wilkinson, Gemma Arterton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Mackenzie Crook, Rory Kinnear. This is serious A-list firepower in the cast.
The series starts promisingly, hitting the right emotional and tonal beats in the early going. And the cinematography is, at times, quite stunning. But it quickly becomes clear that something isn’t quite gelling. At first, it struck me that it might be the style of the animation. It does a mediocre job, I think, of visually differentiating the many characters—a significant problem since it introduces so many more than the original film does. Nor does the animation lend itself to compelling action. The urgent, heart-pumping adventures of the book fall surprisingly flat in this rendering, especially when compared against Rosen’s film. That movie’s art is more modest, perhaps, but also more sure-handed at conjuring mood. Its depiction of Fiver’s chilling visions, the horrors of Sandleford’s destruction, and the brutality of Efrafa are more creatively evoked, and the fight scenes are shockingly effective, especially for a cartoon. The new Watership Down lacks these strengths; its look, which verges on the photoreal, somehow diminishes both the mystique and the sense of menace. Ultimately, though, I don’t believe the animation is the primary problem. In some ways, the look is quite effective. For example, I liked the decision to situate Efrafa in the ruins of brick buildings, which contributes a prison-like atmosphere to Woundwort’s oppressive territory. It could all have been made to work.
During the third episode, it struck me: The new series, faced with a plethora of modernizing choices, makes too many incorrect ones. Some of its choices are understandable and easy to get behind: gender-swapping Strawberry, for example, or enhancing the role of Hyzenthlay. But the bulk of them founder on the rocks, especially the more blatantly political ones: the way the fatalists of Cowslip’s warren are painted as blinkered religious zealots, or the rather obvious #metoo uprising of the Efrafan does. They are good ideas, badly executed. Others choices feel like seasoned screenwriters grasping for market-tested beats: extraneous romantic subplots (Hazel and Clover, Hyzenthlay and Holly), or the pseudo-amusing romantic rivalry between Dandelion and Hawkbit. Perhaps the worst decisions, however, came in the realm of characterization; the series fundamentally misjudges the importance of many prominent players in the original. Certainly not every character needed to be here, of course—alas, poor Speedwell, still no adaptation love for you. But with all these great actors at your disposal, why would you remove Silver and Pipkin entirely, in favor of inventing random Efrafran Owsla? Or diminish the roles of Blackberry, Dandelion, and the scrappy, tragic Blackavar (Henry Goodman)? It all feels like resources misdirected.
Obviously, I’m pretty attached to Watership Down, but I’m also a pragmatist, generally sanguine about the realities of successfully adapting a book. Changes are usually necessary to make literature work in a visual medium. Alas, this adaptation makes too many arbitrary decisions and not enough strategic ones, managing to lengthen the story but also make it smaller. Still, I suppose it has its moments, and all that brilliant voice talent, and hey, it inspired me to go back to the originals, which proved to be an illuminating and entertaining exercise. For that reason, I’m certainly glad I watched the new series, and hopefully it will serve as a gateway for new readers. All in all, though, definitely not my favorite Watership Down.
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